Saturday, September 24, 2016

What I learned at #SABC2016

This week I had the privilege of participating in the 4th Annual South Asia Biosafety Conference (#SABC2016) , convened in Hyderabad, India, and organized by the South Asia Biosafety Program (SABP), Biotech Consortium India Limited (BCIL), and the ILSI Research Foundation.

The organizers kindly asked me to present a talk on communications to the group --- as it turned out, the last scheduled talk of the last session on the last day of the conference! Why do we always leave the topic of communications to the end of our meeting/conference call/grant proposal?  I made the case that we mustn’t leave the work of communication and outreach to the end of our project, and shared ways to build strong messages that start with ‘why’, visibility, allies and issue management, all to reduce risks from start to finish. 

But for three days of incredibly diverse talks before that, each session expanded my own understanding of biosafety concepts, trends, and challenges. 

Biosafety is all about identifying, assessing and managing potential risks from biological research and development. In the case of agricultural biotechnology, this includes safety for human and animal health (that is, food and feed) as well as environmental safety.

#SABC2016 speakers beautifully demonstrated what this means in South Asia and beyond. Here are my top three take-aways:

1. Biosafety anywhere can help biosafety everywhere. 
Updates on the status of biosafety across South Asia were complemented by presentations on biosafety policies, systems and experiences in SE Asia, South Africa and Kenya. This gave us all a more complete sense of how concepts and best practices are evolving, and new ideas for ways to address similar challenges. For example, Abe Manalo’s review of recent twists and turns in the Philippines' biosafety system and Osman Mewett’s talk on Australia’s combination of federal and state policies both gave hope for others on similar regulatory adventures. Hennie Groenewald’s description of how South Africa’s regulators, technology providers and farmer worked together to make refuge requirements a reality was also of great interest. 

2. Biosafety isn’t just for GM plants. 
Dr John Teem talked about GIANT SNAILS!
I’m a confirmed plant nerd, but it was fascinating to hear how researchers are developing new ways to stop the spread of invasive species (GIANT SNAILS!!), protect important industries (silkworms) and stop the spread of disease (mosquitos). Walking us through the safety considerations related to each of these benefits gave a fresh perspective on why and how we address these issues in the first place. 

3. Biosafety has to keep up with new advances in research and development. 
So-called ‘new breeding technologies’ look like they’re going to deliver important new benefits for agriculture.  This week I made more progress in my personal quest to really understand what gene-editing, gene drives, CRISPR cas9 and other new tools are all about. I’ve been communicating about GM technology for two decades now, and if I struggle to track the new stuff and find ways to explain it to others, imagine the challenges facing regulators around the world! The science says these new technologies may have even less potential risk than the older transgenics, but they still need to be properly assessed. And in the meantime, GM products in development and in the ground still have enormous value and shouldn’t be abandoned (the story of the virus-resistant plums is especially compelling). 

Other highlights included learning about story-centric approach to writing regulatory dossiers, my first visit the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and sharing a panel with Director-General Dr David Bergvinson, catching up with dear colleagues from past projects, and meeting new friends over delicious plates of briyani (and a long bus ride or two). 

My talk and most of the others are online now. Please explore and support the work of SABP as they help scientists and regulators in India, Bangladesh and other countries build their research tools, training, policies and networks. It’s all about using new agriculture technology to safely benefit economic and agricultural development, international trade and environmental sustainability -- and those most in need. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Why I start with why

Around 7 years ago, my scientist-friend G. came back from a conference on agriculture research full of excitement about a communications talk he'd heard. "We need to talk first about why we're doing this project," he said, "before we tell people what we're doing!" The speaker’s point was that putting the 'what' before the 'why' makes it difficult for people to connect with research and new technology projects. 

Ever since that day, 'why before what' has been a guiding principle in my communications work. I've encouraged every client I work with to craft core messages that begin with the challenge or problem in agriculture, nutrition or development before jumping into the details of what and how they're addressing it. It can be a tough sell because when scientists talk to other scientists, they're all most interested in the cool new technique or elegant pathway or unique combination of genes at the heart of the research program. 
 Source: IRRI

But for every other audience, taking time to first describe the 'why' behind the work pays off. It may be impact of a plant disease on small family farms in east Africa. It may be the lifelong health risks to children in Asia who are growing up without essential nutrients even  after all other nutrition programs have done the best they can do. 

I'm giving a talk at the SABC conference in Hyderabad next week about keys to communicating well throughout a research project’s lifecycle, and 'why before what' is my first piece of advice.  As I organized my talk I was curious about where that concept came from. Google revealed that Simon Sinek has a widely-viewed TED talk and a bestselling leadership book from 2009, both titled "Start with Why." Perhaps this was the speaker my friend G. heard, or the at least where the speaker got his ideas. 

 Sinek's Golden CircleThe TED talk and the book both lay out a 'Golden Circle' of communications. Actually they are three concentric rings: the outermost is 'what', within it is a smaller one labeled 'how' and at the center is the 'why' circle. Sinek says that most organizations work from the outside in- they first describe what they do/make/sell, then talk about how the way they do it is better than others, and then usually ask for people to buy it. 

And it works sometime- motivating people based on these external or surface factors: price, features, even prestige. But when those things change or are challenged by others, loyalty is fragile. 

On the other hand, starting with 'why' or the core values of an organization helps build connection, relationship and trust with those who share the same values. It is more difficult and even awkward to talk like this, but Sinek cites the impact of visionary leaders such as Bill Gates to make his case that it's worth doing. He kept Microsoft focused on making the power of computers work for people on a personal level, with products that were developed to serve that, rather than a single kind of software. Today of course, Gates and his wife Melinda bring that same leadership to their charitable foundation in the belief that all lives have equal value. That’s their ‘why’ and it in turn inspires and enables the work of so many of us working in agriculture research and development around the world.  

When the 'why' is clear, the 'how' is disciplined and the 'what' is consistent, then we have the best opportunity to find common ground with those stakeholders whose support we are seeking, whose concerns we need to address. We build trust when our motivations are clearly expressed and our actions back it up.

Sinek connects this to neuroscience in his book, but what struck me even more are the connections to the science of risk communication-- specifically the focus on empathy and its primary role in establishing trust and credibility. "People need to know that you care, before they care what you know" I remember hearing from my teacher Vince Covello over and over again! It's all part of the same approach. 

Just last week, G. was able to find the handout from that conference talk many years ago and we were surprised to see that it doesn't mention the word 'why' at all. Perhaps it was just something the speaker said, and in this case it doesn't matter why!